By Craig Wilson
Subscription-based news applications and pay walls are regarded by some people as a denial of the fundamentally open nature of the Internet. But is it really practical or in our best interests to assume everything online should be free? Free content carries no guarantee of quality whereas paid-for content implicitly does, and if that promise proves false you can simply stop paying.
The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the London Review of Books, The Economist and — closer to home — the likes of the Mail & Guardian and iMaverick all assume that reasonably priced, original, high-quality content is worth paying for. Moreover, they’re hoping they can charge less than they would for physical copies and make up the difference in the volume made possible by digital.
I say “difference” because, despite the saving on print and distribution costs, the production costs behind any quality publication remain surprisingly high — whether it’s distributed physically or digitally. The cost of good journalists, telephones and Internet connections, and petrol don’t change.
Nevertheless, readers — particularly younger ones — often believe that online content should at least be cheaper, if not altogether free. Those of us who remember subscribing to quality magazines or periodicals, and in some cases still do, are more willing to accept that good content isn’t (always) free.
Almost every technology speaker working today has a slide that talks about how the exponential growth in the amount of information available for consumption continues unabated. There’s no reason to believe this is going to change. By the same token, with increased content comes increased bunkum.
Thanks to “curation” and re-blogging sites such as Pinterest, Tumblr, Posterous — in addition to the bigwigs of social media such as Facebook, Google+ and Twitter — we don’t just have to deal with more information but with some of it appearing on multiple channels. What we crave are filters.
For many, the question has shifted from how to keep up with the barrage of new stories and images to how to keep out the unwanted ones. Just as RSS readers were meant to bring the news we want to us directly, curation sites were meant to help reduce the noise. But it’s all too easy to end up following too many, and oh so hard to find ones run by people who are consistently and sufficiently discerning.
That’s where the reputable — and reasonably priced — players become more important. We all want to be well informed. In this regard, the services of pay sites are invaluable. By demanding a fee they make the claim that theirs is valuable content and that it has been sourced, collated and served up for your pleasure and in accordance with your preferences and desires.
Increasingly, pay-walled services also offer means to further tailor content to your preferences and, because you’ve paid, there is less incentive to try and direct you to sponsored content or lure you into clicking on an advertisement. There’s also less incentive to produce fluff for the sake of pushing out new content.
Sure, there are plenty of places to get free, quality content, but it takes a degree of effort. As data proliferates, convenience becomes all the more valuable to time-strapped consumers.
This is why music streaming service Spotify has done so well: it’s reasonably priced – at US$5 or $10/month, depending on which features you want — and it’s more convenient than pirating. That’s the secret to getting people to pay for services, whether they’re movies on Netflix or articles from the finest publications: make it convenient and people will pay.
If publications can provide convenience and maintain the quality of their content, there’s no reason they can’t continue to charge for their offerings, particularly in an age where click-through rates on website advertisements continue to plummet and users become ever-more adept at blocking them anyway.
There’s no need to try and trip up consumers with ads in order to cover overheads. Rather, the battle for eyes on pages or screens needs to be fought over content. The publications with the best writers, editors and photographers deserve to be read, and they deserve to get paid. Consumers, meanwhile, deserve to be treated like adults and asked to pay up-front in exchange for access to the brightest and best.
That’s not to say quality content should only be available to those who can afford it. Firstly, the prices shouldn’t be prohibitive. Secondly, the model adopted by The New York Times is admirable — regardless of how easy it is to get around for the suitably inclined. The newspaper offers a handful of free articles every day, and often it’s the best to boot. If you want more, you pay.
By paying for content you get the benefit of reassurances. The publication, meanwhile, gets reminded that if it doesn’t keep up its standards, it’ll lose your attention and with it your monthly payment. It’s not a new model, it’s the oldest; but it’s also the best.
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